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'Last of the downtown mansions' demolished in McKeesport

| Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 4:06 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
A Lutterman Excavating crew clears rubble from the ground around the former Fraternal Order of Eagles building along Market Street in McKeesport on Monday.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
A Lutterman Excavating crew knocks down the upper floors and stone exterior of the former Fraternal Order of Eagles building along Market Street in McKeesport on Monday.

Time has run out for the old Eagles hall in downtown McKeesport.

What a former owner termed “the last of the downtown mansions” is being torn down under a city contract by Lutterman Excavating LLC of Greensburg.

“Just a week or so ago, part of the front of the building started to collapse,” Mayor Michael Cherepko said. “We were then in a position to secure it and actually demolish the building.”

The city was put into that position earlier this year when it acquired the building from the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport, which in turn had taken possession of the 8,400-square-foot property in 2011 for delinquent taxes from Museum Hair Institute.

“The city started litigation under my tenure (as mayor) to take that property and have it demolished,” state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, said in 2011. “We were concerned about safety hazards and the ability to market that area.”

Cherepko was city council president then.

“A local society fought us and tried to intervene,” Cherepko said, referring to the McKeesport Preservation Society, directed by Maryann Huk.

Huk declined comment.

In 1991 Museum Hair Institute obtained the three-story building along Market Street and Sixth Avenue.

In 2005 Allegheny County's real estate website showed that MHI was delinquent in paying county real estate taxes for at least four years. But MHI partner Henry W. Russell said it didn't show the progress he made in paying those taxes.

“When I took the buildings over, I assumed the back taxes,” the MHI partner acknowledged. “It doesn't show that there has been $65,000 paid over a 60-month period. I have a payment program set up with the taxing bodies.” According to Allegheny County real estate records, the building was valued at $30,100 when it changed hands. The property was assessed at a taxable value of $136,900, including $18,500 for the land.

“When I came into office I allowed the Museum Hair Institute 90 to 120 days to come up with a plan (for restoring the building),” Cherepko said. “They did not come up with a plan.”

Formerly known as the Hitzrot house, the original structure at 626 Market St. was built in 1892 and sold to the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1911.

According to Jonathon Denson's Discovering Historic Pittsburgh website, Dr. Henry Hitzrot built the house, employing architect Frederick Sauer to design it.

Denson said Sauer designed a variety of buildings that became landmarks in and around Pittsburgh.

The Eagles attached an auditorium to the house in the 1920s and operated the Aerie 285 lodge there into the mid 1980s.

“This is the last of the downtown mansions,” Russell said in 2005.

That was four years after a fire damaged the building.

“It's just heartbreaking to look at a building of that style, that type of architecture ... and know that the owners have let it fall into disrepair,” McKeesport Fire Department Deputy Chief Chuck Margliotti said. “The fire is not what killed that building. The lack of upkeep is what killed it.”

Margliotti said the blaze wasn't exceptionally fierce.

“There was just so much junk stored in there,” he said. “We were able to put out the fire and save the building, but there was such a disorganized amount of junk.”

Cherepko sees the lot that will remain after Lutterman finishes its work as part of a development that may build up the entire area around the Palisades and Marina at McKees Point.

The mayor referred to the recent donation of nearby property by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and its McKeesport Corpus Christi parish.

“You have to build around our assets and our destination points,” Cherepko said.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.